The trick to using optimism to live longer and better

What does it mean to be an optimist? And can an optimistic outlook on life really help you live longer?

Recent research has determined that having an optimistic outlook on life can absolutely add years to your healthspan, the number of years you get to live a healthy, disease-free, productive life.

However, it all depends on when you’re optimistic in response to the stressors in your life — before they happen or after.

But first…

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What exactly is optimism?

First, let’s be clear on what optimism is NOT.

Being optimistic does not mean being constantly cheerful. When something painful or difficult happens, it’s expected that you’d feel hurt or sad.

But an optimist is someone who expects good things to happen. The dictionary defines optimism as hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.

The authors of a 2019 study explain the power of optimism this way:

“Optimistic individuals tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them; thus, optimism may foster health-promoting habits and bolster resistance of unhealthy impulses through greater engagement with one’s goals, more efficacious problem-solving, and adjustment of goals when they become unattainable.”

In other words, having hope for the future leads to health-promoting behaviors like eating well, and also helps people be proactive in terms of shifting their focus away from things that bring on that “doom and gloom” feeling.

Two types of emotional regulation

Optimistic people practice something known as antecedent-focused emotion regulation. They purposely change their focus, thus heading off negative emotions and stress before they begin.

Choosing to write in a gratitude journal when faced with a disappointment, rather than ruminating on the negative event, is a good example of antecedent-focused emotional regulation. It’s a choice to turn away from stress.

The authors of a recently published study in The Journals of Gerontology surveyed 234 older men over a period of about 24 years, asking them about their positive and negative moods and stress levels.

They found that this type of emotional regulation can add years to a lifespan, while response-focused emotion regulation, or trying to have a positive emotional reaction to a stressor after it occurs, does not.

“Findings from a sample of older men suggest that optimism may be associated with more favorable emotional well-being later in life through differences in stressor exposure rather than emotional stress response.’”

In other words, choosing to avoid stress in the first place by changing your focus away from stressful situations reaps more benefits than trying to react positively once a stressful event has already occurred.

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How to become more of an optimist

Optimism isn’t necessarily seeing the glass as half full, says Meg Selig, author of Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser and Happier.

Rather, optimism is “the confidence that you can take the glass to the sink and fill it yourself.”

The good news is this: if optimism indeed hinges on self-efficacy and the confidence that one can handle whatever’s coming next, then there are ways you can teach yourself to react in this way more often.

So while you’re thinking about your attitude and how it affects your health and longevity,  here are four things you can start doing right now to help lower the risk of it cutting your healthspan short.

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Always look on the bright side of life! Optimistic people live longer, healthier lives than pessimists because they have fewer stressful events to deal with, study reveals —

Optimism, Daily Stressors, and Emotional Well-Being Over Two Decades in a Cohort of Aging Men — The Journals of Gerontology

Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study American Journal of Epidemiology

Do Optimistic People Live Longer? — Psychology Today

Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.